Fred A. Bernstein

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A Home for Artists, and for Art

The avant garde, on Staten Island!

Published in The New York Times, November 27, 2005

Habitats | St. George, Staten Island
A Home for an Artist, and for Art

Published: November 27, 2005
IF you're wondering where the art world avant-garde is heading, you may want to follow Tattfoo and Ensze Tan to the St. George neighborhood of Staten Island.

When Mr. Tan, a painter, and Ms. Tan, a designer now working as her husband's major-domo, moved from Malaysia to New York five years ago, they rented a place in the East Village. They loved the location, but not the tiny (250-square-foot) apartment. So they joined the exodus to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where they tripled their living area and found themselves surrounded by artists. "I wanted to be a part of that community," Mr. Tan said.

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Mary DiBiase Blaich for The New York Times
Ensze, left, and Tattfoo Tan outside their apartment. Mr. Tan is an artist, Mrs. Tan his manager. Their home highlights his work and showcases others'.

Where Are the Artists Going?

Forum: Owning and Renting a Home

Mary DiBiase Blaich for The New York Times
On the facade is a kind of mural: thousands of duck feathers form a pattern that suggests ivy climbing the building.

Mary DiBiase Blaich for The New York Times
But when his paintings got bigger - and more numerous - the couple needed still more space. They considered staying in Greenpoint and taking a separate studio for Mr. Tan. But, he said, "that would have meant being away from my wife all day; we're partners."

A classified ad led them to the ground floor of a three-story brick building in St. George, in walking distance of the Staten Island Ferry. The space is sprawling, about 3,000 square feet, but the rent is about what they might pay for a large studio or a small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.

Mr. Tan, 30, is one of very few Malaysian artists in New York, and the only one with his own public exhibition space. Several times a year, he organizes shows of other artists, turning the apartment's 1,000-square-foot living room into the Tattfoo Gallery.

That has helped give Staten Island a more dynamic art scene than in his native country in Southeast Asia. "When we have an opening here, people come, they ask questions, they interact with the art," Mr. Tan said. "In Malaysia, people are scared to come to an art show. It's new to them, and they're afraid of asking the wrong questions."

The couple - she was then Ensze Ong - met in Kuala Lumpur when they were both doing work for Isetan, the department store chain based in Tokyo. (She was in fashion design; he was consulting on graphics.) They married in 1998.

Two years later, a former employer encouraged him to move to New York, where he has a graphic design practice. (Right now, Mr. Tan is designing a Mercedes-Benz catalog and menus for Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen, a new chain based in Arizona.) But he had also been studying painting since he was a child, and Ms. Tan encouraged him to devote more time to his art.

To make that possible, he said, "she handles everything that doesn't need my personal attention" - from ordering materials and crating canvases to attending gallery openings when he's too busy. "Everyone in the art world knows us as a unit," Ms. Tan explained.

Asked whether she has ambitions of her own, Ms. Tan said, "It's more typical in Malaysia than in the U.S. for the woman to devote herself to the man's career."

But Ms. Tan, who is five years older than her husband, is hardly subservient. "I'm more ambitious than you," she told her husband before jokingly suggesting that, when it comes to conquering the art world, "Tattfoo is just my puppet."

When they found the Staten Island space in 2003, it had been a furniture restorer's workshop, and it was filled with debris. After disposing of everything they could move, the couple added several plasterboard walls, giving them a foyer gallery, a kitchen-family room combination and a bedroom - in addition to the cavernous living room. They settled on a simple decorating scheme, painting floors, walls and ceilings white. (The paint they buy is Behr's Ultra Pure White. Other brands, Mr. Tan said, are too expensive, given that he sometimes needs 10 or more gallons to repaint the entire space after a gallery show.)

Most of the furniture is by Charles and Ray Eames, American designers whom Mr. Tan idolizes (perhaps for their enduring husband-and-wife collaboration). The art is all by Mr. Tan. His paintings - as large as 6 by 12 feet - incorporate motifs based on Chinese calligraphy and Malaysian flora and fauna, but in a Western medium (acrylic on canvas).

"It's a mix of cultures," he said. He also engages in a process of painting on layers, then scraping them away - which he said parallels the process of shedding aspects of his old culture as he adopts a new one.

One thing the couple may never shed is their preference for warm weather. "I'm a tropical girl," Ms. Tan said, explaining that she is used to the equatorial temperatures of Malaysia.

But their Staten Island space is difficult to heat. Each winter, despite baseboard heaters around the perimeter of the huge rooms, the temperature drops to the point where they can see their breath, Mr. Tan said.

So Ms. Tan took up knitting, creating matching scarves for herself, her husband and Bryant, their Dalmatian-pit bull mix.

The couple, both ethnically Chinese, grew up speaking Chinese dialects at home, while learning English and Malay in school. Their English, if slightly accented, is perfectly idiomatic. When asked how she handles the cold of winter, Ms. Tan said, "I suck it up."

The couple's neighborhood is as ethnically mixed as any in the city - there are Mexican, Polish and Sri Lankan restaurants within a block of their house. It is also architecturally diverse, with high-rise apartment buildings, two-family houses, town houses and even suburban-style homes surrounded by tidy lawns on the same block.

Despite all that, the Tans' building stands out. With a grant from the Council for the Arts and Humanities of Staten Island, they commissioned the Taiwanese artist Wen-fu Yu to turn the brick facade into a kind of mural. Thousands of duck feathers form a pattern that suggests ivy climbing the outside of the building.

Mr. Tan said no one has complained about the intrusion of contemporary art into a residential neighborhood. "People stop in front of it," Mr. Tan said, "and say, 'When can you come do my house?'